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Anglican Church moves to eliminate conversion prayer

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Members gather for the Anglican Church of Canada's General Synod in Halifax in 2010. BRIYYZ/FLICKR PHOTO

The Anglican Church of Canada has begun the process of removing the last vestige of anti-Semitism from its traditional prayerbook – a prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

Inexplicably, this prayer remains in the 1962 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, 25 years after another prayer beseeching the Jews to accept Christianity was expunged. That prayer was recited on Good Friday and was removed in 1992.

Right Rev. Bruce Myers, the bishop of Quebec, is spearheading the move to have the apparently overlooked prayer eliminated. But the complex church procedure for changing canon, or church law, will take years, he told The CJN.

Myers, who presented the issue to the church’s Council of General Synod on Nov. 11, said the removal would be a “small but meaningful gesture” in fulfilling the Anglican Church of Canada’s official policy of rejecting anti-Semitism in all forms.

Myers has been tasked with drafting a motion to come before the 2019 General Synod, the church’s highest governing body, which convenes every three years. The motion would have to have a second reading in 2022.

In both instances, a two-thirds majority vote in each of the synod’s three components – clergy, laity and bishops – is required for a motion of this kind to be adopted.

READ: ANGLICAN CHURCH REISSUES DOCUMENT ON ANTI-SEMITISM

Myers thinks it was simply an “oversight” that the prayer was not dropped with the other one in 1992. The likely explanation is that the Good Friday prayer was part of an annual service – on the most solemn day on the Christian calendar – whereas the one still on the books is in a section of more than 50 prayers for various occasions that can be used discretionally.

The prayer for the conversion of the Jews, however, does not appear to be recited very often. A majority of Anglican churches now predominantly use the 1985 Book of Alternative Services, Myers said, which does not contain any suggestion of converting Jews.

The explicit Good Friday prayer for conversion particularly rankled the Jewish community because it talked about the Jews’ “hardness of heart” – language that, like the Book of Common Prayer, is rooted in 16th-century England.

The language may be less harsh, but the one still on the books is clear in its intent. It reads, in part, “O God, who didst choose Israel to be thine inheritance: Look, we beseech thee, upon thine ancient people; open their hearts that they may see and confess the Lord Jesus to by thy Son and their true Messiah … and hasten the time when all Israel shall be saved.”

Myers, 44, a former broadcast journalist, became the bishop of Quebec in May 2016. Based in Quebec City, his diocese covers most of the province, with the notable exception of Montreal. Before becoming bishop, Myers was the church’s co-ordinator of ecumenical and interfaith relations, and is keenly aware of how important even small gestures are to improving relations between Anglicans and Jews.

At the 2016 General Synod, a motion to remove the prayer failed to attain a two-thirds majority among all three representative groups by the narrowest of margins: more than 70 per cent of clergy and laity voted for it, but only 65 per cent of bishops approved it.

Right Rev. Bruce Myers

The authoritative council itself will present the motion at the next General Synod. It will also include the historical and theological background, something that did not happen in 2016, when that motion came up during miscellaneous “housekeeping,” with little context, Myers said.

He believes the first attempt failed because the General Synod was not given a sufficient explanation about why the move was necessary. “It was very disappointing to many members, not the least of which, me,” he said, “but what happened was chiefly procedural and should in no way be interpreted as a revising of (the church’s) attitude.”

While the process involved in changing canon is lengthy, he said that it will give church members time to reflect on Christianity’s “historic complicity with anti-Semitism. It’s important to have this conversation once again within our church.”

The elimination of the remaining conversion prayer would send “an important signal to our Jewish sisters and brothers that the prayers we offer match our rhetoric about rejecting anti-Semitism of any kind,” said Myers.

“Since the 1930s, until most recently 2013, the Anglican Church of Canada has passed resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and affirming dialogue with the organized Jewish community.”

While making the gospel known to all people is fundamental to Christianity, Myers said “it always needs to be an invitation, a free choice … it must never be done coercively.” And the Jewish People should not be singled out, both for historical and theological reasons, he added.

“Christianity grew out of Judaism. We have a particular kinship, and we forget that at our peril and the peril of the Jews,” he said.

So far, Myers said he has received “only positive echoes back from different quarters of the church. I’m hopeful the motion will see its way through.”

According to its website, the Anglican Church of Canada has more than 500,000 members in nearly 1,700 parishes, which makes it the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country.